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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Recordings Review: The Best of Both Worlds

Marek Janowski's new Tannhäuser splits the difference. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Venus (center) and Tannhäuser in Lawrence Koe's 1896 painting Venus and Tännhäuser.
Image © 1896 Lawrence Koe.
Like its protagonist, Tannhäuser, the fifth opera by Richard Wagner (and the second to be considered "mature") is cursed with a double existence. Conductors can choose between the composer's original intentions ("Dresden") or the luscious orchestrations and rich "mature" Wagner of the "Paris" version created for a disastrous "second premiere" at the Paris Opéra in 1861. It is a difficult choice, as the later revisions give the story a very different tone and inflection.

On this new recording, the sixth in his series of ten Wagner operas with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, conductor Marek Janowski splits the difference. For most of this recording, (made, like all the others under live recording conditions in the Berlin Philharmonie) Mr. Janowski chooses the Dresden version of the score, with its conservative thematic developments and longer second act. In the finale, he switches to the Paris version, bringing Venus back to the stage in a coup de théâtre that no conductor should resist.

The plot of Tannhäuser is as complex as its genesis. Wagner duct-taped together three medieval legends. The first is the tale of the title character, a ballad-spinning knight whose lengthy relationship with the immortal goddess Venus nearly cost him his soul. The second: a legendary Sängerkrieg (song contest) at the Wartburg, a Thuringian castle that still hosts musical events today. Finally, he stirred in the legend of the blessed St. Elisabeth of Hungary. Here, that medieval saint becomes an idealist young Wagner heroine whose intervention on Tannhäuser's behalf leads to her self-sacrifice.

Mr. Janowski has a strong cast to act out this little medieval mystery tour. It is led by tenor Robert Dean Smith (an eleventh-hour substitute for Torsten Kerl) who copes admirably with the role's difficult, high range and stamina-testing three acts. Mr. Smith is what a Tannhäuser should be, veering from boldness to desperation in the Venusberg scene and bringing out the emotional detail of the harrowing "Rome Narration." He copes very well with a demanding, brutal part that is, in its own way as difficult as Tristan or Siegfried.

He is flanked by two strong female leads. Nina Stemme is Elisabeth. She is a formidable presence, using her full-throated soprano to express the boisterous energy of "Dich teure halle." She generates real chemistry in her scenes with Mr. Smith in Act II, as Mr. Janowski hurries the duet along. The diva moment comes in her Act III prayer scene, right before her character's offstage death. Marina Prudenskaya is potent as Venus, although the choice to use the character's "Dresden" music in the first act makes the part easier to sing and somewhat less interesting. Her intrusion in Act III is very welcome indeed.

The "hit tune" from this score is "O du mein holder Abendstern" (ironically an address to the Evening Star--Venus!) Baritone Christian Gerhaher is very good as Wolfram von Eschenbach. The singer brings a probing intelligence to the words of "Abendstern" and sings the sweetest notes without crooning.. Better yet, Mr. Gerhaher shows deep absorption in the psychological aspects of the part. His Wolfram is a deep thinker, not a sidekick. Albert Dohmen, a fixture of this recording series is a solid, gruff Landgrave (Elsa's father.) The supporting roles, with Bianca Riem as the Shepherd Boy and Wilhelm Schwinghammer as Biterolf are well executed.

The Berlin forces play with the right combination of force and delicacy. The full overture is a highlight, with its tripartite structure contrasting the solemn pilgrim theme, the wild Venusberg music and the combination of the two in the last, triumphant bars. After this, the opera itself seems a bit of a letdown, and one sees why Wagner chose to meld the Venus themes into the ballet and remove the full stop in the first act. The song contest itself has momentum under Mr. Janowski. The choristers are very fine, although the finale makes one wish for a little more sweep and symphonic grandeur, but overall this is a solid entry in the series.

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